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What Does Bravery Look Like?

Trigger Warning: Medical imagery

When I was little, I always wanted to be brave when I grew up. (And an author, of course.) Bravery, to me, meant what I saw in the movies - people doing daredevil feats, climbing mountains, bungee jumping, and being unafraid of the everyday things that scared me so much. Even petting a dog or trying a new food seemed like an insurmountable amount of bravery.

Over the years of living with OCD, I’m slowly learning that bravery can take many different forms, whether or not I see it in myself.

This past weekend, I was forced to be brave in a way that I’ve had to deal with since I was hospitalized seven years ago for a potentially fatal blood clot. Thanks to the medicine I’m on, I can start to bleed severely at any time. One of those (thankfully infrequent) times was this past Friday, when a small injury turned into an alarming amount of blood. I could feel my heart pumping in my chest as it just kept coming and coming and coming - and nothing I was doing to stop it was working at all. My thoughts raced along with my heart and I couldn’t help but think, in those first few moments, that I was the worst coward who ever lived.

It was then that I thought about what Mom said when I first got out of the hospital all those years ago. She got me a card with Wonder Woman on it and wrote inside that I had been so brave.

 I was shocked when I read the card. How could I be brave when I was little more than a crying mess for the entire time? How could I be brave when I was afraid of every little thing from beeping machines to drinking the tap water? How could I be brave when I tried to kick a nurse whose job it was to wake me up for a midnight blood draw?

Mom explained: then, and this weekend, I was brave because I kept going. I had the option to drop out and lose a semester and take more time to recover, but I didn’t. I had the option to not do the surgeries and risk permanent disability for the sake of my fear, but I pushed ahead, even knowing I would have to do at least one surgery while awake. No matter what happened, I did my best to keep my spirits up and I took all the steps I knew to do.

I did the same thing this weekend. I rationalized my actions in my head instead of running around like a chicken with its head cut off (my favorite metaphor for when my thoughts run amok). I may have talked out the steps to myself, everything as simple as finding clean towels and warm water, but I did it. I also knew to do the other things that would get me off of the peak of anxiety: I called my family, wrote to my best friend, cuddled up in a soft outfit and started playing a calming video game. Even as I took breaks in conversation to exclaim that the bleeding still hadn’t stopped, I quickly returned to the distractions I had created for myself.

I’m starting to recognize bravery in actions like the ones I did last weekend. It’s not the same thing as holding a giant iguana or ziplining (two things I’ve also pushed myself to do this past year), but it’s bravery nonetheless. I knew what was coming, and I did it. No matter how afraid I was, I did it.

I see that kind of bravery in my friends who also live with mental illness. Whether it’s the bravery to do a job interview with social anxiety or join a social group with autism, it strikes me that the people I know find ways to make every day a new opportunity for courage. While I hope I don’t have too many opportunities to prove my strength in situations like this weekend, I do know that my life with OCD so far has prepared me to fight for the kind of bravery I am good at, and to learn to see that as a positive about my diagnosis.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.